Widely known for the pendent egg detail, Piero della Francesca’s Brera Altarpiece should be literally explained  for what it represents: a hanging spawn.

piero-della-francesca-brera-egg-detPiero della Francesca is the most architectonic among italian renaissance painters. Nevertheless, his cold-hearted rigorous attitude suddenly donates a symbolism which is powerfully unique in the panorama.  Well did those modern art critics who have realized that this weird egg could not be separated from the mother-shell. But this insight has soon run out, and they have scrambled on mirrors to think a symbolic reason for this hieroglyph. And that for centuries.

The oil on table we are examining is known as “Brera Altarpiece”, because it is now in Pinacoteca of Brera in Milano. But in the registers of “Convento di San Bernardino”, the first housing for the painting, the work was recorded as ” Sacred Conversation with Madonna and child, six saints, four angels and the donor Federico da Montefeltro”. To be fair, in the same register the work is even attributed to an author other than Piero della Francesca, that’s to say a not widely known Fra Carnevale. Very less is also known about the agreements between Federico da Montefeltro, the client, and Piero della Francesca. According to some historians of art the altarpiece was intended to take an important role in funeral affairs to honor the young wife of Federico da Montefeltro, Battista Sforza, died in childbirth, and portrayed by Piero della Francesca in the face of the Madonna.

Neither we know the exact date in which the work was painted,  presumably before 1474, though in the above mention register was recorded the year 1472. Definitely a masterpiece on which apparently no one wanted to take responsibility for having done and hosted. Among the other mysteries of the table, nobody knows why Federico da Montefeltro’s hands were repainted some years after ( probably by Pedro Berruguete, the painter to Urbino Court). May be some rings must disappear. On a duke Federico’s order, of course. Concerning the duke’s hands, is interesting to note the presence of his unwieldy iron gloves on the ground, as though there has been an intention to increase the pointing at these hands. Definitely they seem to play a not negligible role in the  painting.

Piero_della_Francesca_Brera_AltarpieceLet’s that aside, for the moment, as well as the magnificent and monumental perspective, which is a distinctive Piero della Francesca’s  feature, and focus on the egg. In fact the altarpiece is universally known for the pendent egg detail. Not for the shell in the canopy of the half dome though, since this iconographic theme is not unusual in the fifteenth century italian painting panorama, especially the Florentine and Venetian one. Many italian Madonnas have been portrayed under a huge marine shell. While this hanging down egg is a unique. So clear in its rendering to cause a state of perplexity among art critics, who have defined it “ostrich egg”. Perhaps intending to underline a singularity which instead, back in renaissance, should have not.

Some historians of art have stated that Piero della Francesca could but paint an egg, as symbolic target, for the simple reason an egg represents a very effective three-dimensional architectural element. They treat Piero della Francesca as a modern artist used to paint just mere perspective decorations for interior design reasons.

When it comes to propose a symbolic perspective, instead, other modern historians have given the egg the meaning of caducity of life,  suspended by the imminent thin thread of destiny ( drawing on the young duchess sudden death). Others have designated a sense of cosmic egg, or seed of life. But what about the upper shell? There is a current tradition to neglect the whole symbolic environment,  and untie every single piece of symbolism as owning to a symbolic environment per se.  So, concerning the shell, they have put forward the symbol of “New Venus”. So the seed of life is banally hanging down from a huge new Venus.  But, is it not blasphemous for a catholic to compare Mary, the mother of Christ to Venus, the voluptuous goddess? An out of place huge fertility celebration, according to them.

The thesis is contradicted by other critics who, instead, have proposed the egg as symbol of Mary’s virginity. They alone may know in what possible way ( I can guess, because the egg is seal closed ). By the way, what about  the presence of countless rose flowers to beautify the coffered vault? Of course a tribute to Mary’s beauty as a new modest Venus.  No wonder, catholics have always been renown for their fantasy not always  sustained by sound rationality.

All these moderns fail to understand that even a mere decoration, if so, was highly tied to symbolism, in the end of fifteenth century. And, in the case they accept that, they fail to accept the culture of the renaissance time. A good hermetic, and alchemical, knowledge was quite ubiquitous among the artists of the time, as well as their patrons (Federico da Montefeltro, as a young boy, was student of the humanist Vittorino da Feltre). Little pieces of hermeticism were quite ubiquitously scattered in the renaissance art. And here lies another problem: what kind of hermeticism are our modern historians willing to accept? In my opinion a hermeticism so domesticated, and consequently so far from the real renaissance hermeticism, that they hardly go above and beyond a pure triteness, so no wonder they have a real hard time in explaining a symbolism they have missed the bunch of keys to decrypt.

I can try to fit the clichéd idea of cosmic egg to this Piero della Francesca’s enigma. I can also take the trite symbolism of a huge shell as universe. But of course I prefer the alchemical meaning of the shell as unique animal to tranform water in earth (our element Water to element Earth).  So the cosmic seed is not only being born by the universe but also by the element Water turned into Earth. In fact the Egg is a sort of vitrification of our Prima Materia in the third work, or last cooking.

Anyway one can’t help to ask oneself why Piero della Francesca’s egg is prevented to fall by a thread.  So why this fear to fall, if everything around universe must necessarily be universe again. And, in the meanwhile, I also can’t help to look at the duke Federico’s hands. But let’s get back to our main topic.

Even so, according to our modern historians, we are before a philosophical egg. Even if, for these scholars, philosophical must be an idea so abstract to result as impractical as a mere decoration. But, back at that time, people were not used to accept symbols so abstract to come in useless, as we are used to.

Piero_della_Francesca_Brera_AltarpieceThe egg in the table is not suspended by a thread to simply suggest its hovering above the Madonna below. I refuse to think that Piero della Francesca had needed such a ludicrous machinery to give a floating impression. I take this as an offense to this rigorous and genial painter, as well as a nonsense. A Philosophical Egg, in renaissance, couldn’t  in any way be suspended for poetic and abstract reasons. It should have hung for real reasons. And here come in duke Federico’s hands. Because an egg is made to be hanging by human hands. It is a human ability to be able to suspend an egg from a shell. But that shell must be an alchemical shell. It is commonly accepted that so many renaissance masterpieces can contain alchemical details, while this altarpiece is often presented as an example of poetic and abstract symbolism. Well, here I’m sparing no effort in trying to demonstrate that this oil on table is overtly putting on display, instead, the more practical, and hard to be made, piece of practical Alchemy. Piero della Francesca was the ratio made painting art.

The shell in the table is unequivocally a symbol of our huge Mercurial Sea become earth. As it was in many alchemical drawings of the time. Which is not  less poetic than universe itself, since we alchemists do believe that our Mercurius/Secret Fire is the Spirit of Life bringing Life to everything and everywhere. The Madonna is a mercurial symbol as well, of a different stage, that one of mother of Sulphur-little Child (1). A sulfurous child who can be defined Egg, and without fear to appear blasphemous. In the end the rose flowers beautifying the coffered vault, are the alchemical sulfurous blossoms per antonomasia. Don’t take for granted they must be red color: the child wears two little coral trees (2) around his neck. It was a symbol to grant good fortune to the new baby, but also a symbol of alchemical Sulphur. One is red, but the other is white. Just like our two Sulphuri.

Flamel hieroglyphical figures philosophical vesselSome of you may have noted that this post just follows another one treating the philosophical egg according to ancient chemistry, where Nicaise le Fevre (3) has  contended himself to give some hints on tools. In Alchemy this is the more secret and enigmatic topic.  One of the reasons is because is rigorously handcrafted. The Philosophical Egg has to be skillfully suspended by hand (as Flamel seems to indicate). It is also known as “Vase”, because it is a real construction, composed by three levels, one of which seems to be really suspended. A less aesthetic concerned renaissance painter, Hieronymus Bosch, will represent the same scene in a total different way (4).

The “Vase-Egg” is the final, allowed to know, step of the Art of Metals ( see an Opus Magnum scheme). Or, better, the first of blurring steps (5).

We can now understand why Federico da Montefeltro’s hands have been so focused. It is a pity the entire hands  area had been repainted. I wonder what Piero della Francesca had originally conceived.

  1. See also Giorgione, Tempest & Aqua Pontica ;
  2. See also Atalanta Fugiens and Coral from Waters ;
  3. Nicaise le Fevre and the Egg inside the Egg ;
  4. Hieronymus Bosch and the Concert in the Egg ;
  5. See also Canseliet and the Art of Music and Weight , Brouaut’s Frontispiece, the Organ Pythagorean Proportions , Atorène, Music Theory Course for Alchemists. Part 1;